I used to think as a young graduate student that earning a Ph.D. would make me feel confident in myself and my abilities. It has in some ways, but I still fight the fear of failure. Even as I’m entering the final year of my degree program, I worry I will not be able to find a job I like or that I’ll fail in interviews or that I will look back on my life and feel as if I didn’t achieve the success I was looking for.
For me, the fear of career failure seems to never completely go away.
If you struggle with this fear, too, I have a few scriptural pep talks and exercises to share with you. I hope these will strengthen you the way they have me.
1. YOU CAN FAIL AND STILL BE HAPPY
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.”
Psalm 1 (NIV)
Tim Keller, in a remarkable sermon titled “The Search for Happiness,” points out that humans today may not be much happier—if they’re happy at all—than humans of ancient times. Despite advances in technology, health, travel, and science, we still get depressed. We feel unfulfilled and question whether we’ve chosen the right “path.” We constantly fight fear of failure.
Often, the reason I find myself wanting shallow, vaporous forms of “success”—a new car, expensive clothes, a big house, a prestigious job—is because in the back of my mind I think these will make me happy. But Psalm 1 reminds us true success is less about what you do and more about who you keep company with, what you care about, and where you are, no matter what is going on at work.
TRY THIS EXERCISE:
Spend time journaling or thinking about these three questions:
- What relationships are you investing in the most? Are they with people you want to be like or don’t want to be like?
- If someone watched your life thus far on TV, what would they say is most important to you? Is it the answer what you want?
- Who or what are you going to for comfort and joy? Can this person or thing truly give you that?
Ask God to draw you toward people who authentically give and receive love, toward a desire for the eternal rather than the temporary, and toward true sources of comfort and joy.
2. FEAR OF FAILURE CAN INHIBIT SUCCESS
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
Once, I was so anxious about potentially losing my job I could hardly get out of bed. I laid there frozen. I was only able to complete a document for my job by getting up and working on it for about ten minutes at a time before lying back down.
There is no quick fix to nipping anxiety in the bud, and for serious anxiety, you should seek help from a healthcare professional (I did after that day). But, there are strategies I have found that help me stay calm if I feel myself getting anxious:
TRY THIS EXERCISE:
On a small piece of paper, write a biblical response to your worry. Fold that piece of paper and insert it into your wallet to carry with you throughout the day.
Perhaps the phrase you write is the answer to Jesus’ question: “Worry will add nothing to my life.” Or it could be the phrase God and His angels tell so many people so often throughout Scripture: “Do not be afraid.”
Once, I was so worried about making a difficult decision that I wrote down and carried in my wallet the lines: “This is not an irrevocable decision. I am adaptable. I can change with the times. No one decision is final.”
The simple act of writing that response and bearing it as a physical object on my body, looking at it throughout the day, and saying it aloud in a firm voice helped to shift my thinking each time I started worrying about the decision.
3. GOD DOESN’T REQUIRE YOU TO BE A ROCKSTAR
During my first semester as a teacher, I felt I was doing a horrible job (and I probably was—no teacher I’ve met experiences immediate success). One of my student’s faces grew red with anger when I handed her an essay grade, and another told me I “made no sense.” At times while I led the class, I realized I had forgotten some important part of the lesson I should have prepared.
I felt so discouraged I wanted to give up. But people told me I could get better at teaching if I kept trying to improve. Plus, I had to keep going until at least the end of the semester. So, I began using a whispery pep talk with myself to fight the fear of failure.
When I thought of a mistake I made in class or feared making another, I whispered. Whether I was in my office, in the halls of the school, or about to open the door to my classroom, I whispered:
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before the Lord your God”
Micah 6:8 (NIV)
This pep talk took the pressure off me to be a rockstar teacher, helping me realize God wasn’t asking that of me. He was asking me—and I knew would help me— to treat my students fairly, offer them compassion, and remember this was about them getting the information they needed more than about me feeling successful.
4. YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN LOVES YOU AND ALWAYS WILL
“Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God”
Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)
God loved me before I ever did anything: before I got a Ph.D., before I volunteered to lead Bible study, and before I said that nice comment to my neighbor. He loved me “for my existence,” as a father tells his son in Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead.
And He still does. No matter what I do or don’t do, He always will.
Author: Annie Shepherd
Annie Shepherd is a teaching fellow at the University of Houston’s creative writing Ph.D. program, concentrating in fiction. Before coming to Houston, she taught ESL in China for two years and earned an MFA in creative writing from Texas State University. She has won writing fellowships and awards from Inprint, University of Houston, and Texas State University, and has taught writing and literature at the college level for over eight years. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in nationally-recognized publications including North American Review, The Greensboro Review, and North Dakota Quarterly.